Enhancing multi-scale Mekong water governance
by Louis Lebel, Ram C Bastakoti and Rajesh Daniel (2010)
The CPWF Project PN50 “Enhancing multi-scale water governance” was a flagship activity of the Mekong Program on Water, Environment Resilience (M-POWER). Its main goal was to help improve livelihood security, human and ecosystem health in the Mekong Region through democratizing water governance. This was pursued through critical research and direct engagement with stakeholders involved in managing fisheries, floods, irrigation, hydropower, watersheds, urban water works and integrated water management at various scales. In each policy domain we identified common, shared, problems with current patterns of governance and made suggestions on how they could be addressed.
Many problems are supported by under-scrutinized and over-simplified policy narratives. In fisheries, for example, there is an established narrative of doom and crisis for the region’s fisheries that underpins much policy, research and debate. Evidence about the potential adverse impacts of infrastructure on valued fisheries is increasingly acknowledged but has not changed development priorities.
In flood and disaster management political dimensions have usually been neglected. Promises of protection are often made in earth or concrete: dams built far upstream will regulate river flows; diversions will take the water around and past the city; dykes higher and longer will hold back the flood waters; drains, pumps and tunnels will move water out faster. Flood management policies, measures and practices in the greater Mekong region, intended to reduce risks, however, frequently shift risks onto already vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Promises of protection and how they are pursued can be explained in terms of beliefs, interests, and power.
Irrigation has expanded and intensified. Irrigation systems, however, have often not performed as well as expected. Differences between stated policies and actual practices are frequently large. Common institutional reforms do not capture the complexity of basin-wide water management, the multiple functions of irrigation systems, and relationships between different levels of management and as a consequence fail. There is also significant underinvestment in operation and maintenance.
Hydropower governance in the Mekong region is problematic. The problems often start with how long-term electricity generation planning is done. Important assumptions and beliefs that underpin electricity planning practices lack transparency. National planning processes need to become more accessible to the public, both in terms of improved participatory processes, and in terms of improved accountability of authorities. Regulatory and planning functions may need to be separated more explicitly. Regional policy initiatives have sent mixed signals about sustainable hydropower and energy development and this has confounded attempts to improve the sustainability of hydropower.
Upper tributary watersheds in the Mekong Region are contested terrains. Research has underlined the importance of both discourse and agency practices. Decentralization in Mekong region, for instance has put more responsibility for natural resources in the hands of local communities, but at the same time stronger state regulations over forests and commitments to conservation has often given more powers to forest and other land agencies in certain areas. Increased awareness of ecosystem services provided by upland watersheds has been a tool for both asserting importance of management by upland farmers and forest users as well as a basis for exclusion.
Water politics in the peri-urban or desakota landscapes in the Mekong Region must deal with water quality issues as well as challenges of water allocation and flood management. Current institutional arrangements and rescaling of development to larger geographical regions tend to shift environmental and resource scarcity burdens to small farmers. The problem is mediated by administrative separatism, ambiguity and multiplicity in the functional jurisdiction of water-related government bodies, and the general lack of a participatory culture in the bureaucracy.
Across sectors and domains of water policy research in M-POWER studies gave insights into several other key tensions in governance scholarship that also have high practical relevance.
First, public participation programs are not a panacea. Governments and other actors in the Mekong Region often take an instrumental approach to participation and as a consequence being included can be a cost not a benefit. Participation can also legitimize otherwise flawed processes and decisions while sidelining issues of gender and equality. The terms and conditions of participation need to be examined critically.
Second, many water projects continue to be evaluated and promoted in terms of their benefits with insufficient attention given to their costs, burdens or risks. The way assessment and consultation processes are designed and implemented has implications for their credibility, legitimacy and saliency, and ultimately public acceptance. In many cases these processes have been poorly designed and implemented.
Third, discourse and policy narratives play an important role in shaping and justifying decisions. Unpacking these lines of reasoning to reveal faulty assumptions, vested interests and hidden adverse impacts has become a key role for engaged researchers in the Mekong Region in general and in the M-POWER network in particular. How problems and solutions are framed, it turns out, have a very large bearing on which policies and projects are pursued.
Fourth, how policies are made and practices changed are important areas for future research. It is increasingly apparent that in the Mekong Region the pathways to influence are diverse and certainly do not just depend on expert advice or rationale comparison of policy options. Water bureaucracies have adopted modern discourses of participation and integration, but practice rarely matches management discourses or policies on paper.